By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — No. 23 Liberty made sure Arkansas didn’t get to celebrate its homecoming as they jumped on the Hogs early then held on for a 21-19 victory.
Arkansas trailed 21-5 when they scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After the second touchdown pass of the fourth quarter from KJ Jefferson to Trey Knox pulled the Hogs to within two points with 1:11 remaining in the game. Jefferson tried to run for the two-point conversion to tie the game, but after a long review was ruled just short. Sam Pittman asked for an explanation about the ruling.
“I just asked him why it took so long,” Pittman said. “He said they were waiting on the pylon camera angle. But he said that from his viewpoint that he was short. He said his knee hit before the ball got over. Because the ball got a half yard over the goal line but he said his knee hit before.”
Arkansas’ first score came on a 50-yard field goal by Cam Little on the last play of the first half. In the third quarter, the Razorbacks added a safety when talented true freshman Quincey McAdoo blocked an Aidan Alves punt.
That set up the fourth quarter with Arkansas down 21-5. Jefferson found Knox for a 5-yard touchdown with 7:42 remaining in the game. The touchdown pass completed a 17-play, 84-yard drive that took 5:07 off the clock. On the two-point conversion, Rocket Sanders took a direct snap and ran it in to get Arkansas within 21-13.
After the Arkansas defense then forced another Liberty punt, Jefferson and the offense went back to work. This time, Jefferson found Knox for an 8-yard touchdown. After the two-point conversion was ruled no good, the Hogs tried an onside kick that failed. The team looked sluggish and unmotivated for the first three quarters. Was that a concern for Pittman entering the game?
“I was worried about it because of the way we played against Missouri State, but I kept trying to tell them about trying to get bowl eligible,” Pittman said. “Trying to — this team was 23rd in the AP, Wake Forest was 17 and they just didn’t make a 2-point play or they’d be undefeated. I tried to go with all those things to motivate. I thought we had pretty good practices up until Thursday. Our walk-through, we had a couple of mistakes on Friday walk-through that is not typical.
“I knew we weren’t quite as locked in as we need to be, but tried to adjust that on the bus, during the practice, after the practice, but I was a little bit concerned about where we were mentally. But I certainly thought that we had a good game plan and that we’d come out and play hard, and play together, and we didn’t. Either that, or they were that much better than us in the first half. I would hate to think that. I would think that we just didn’t, we weren’t playing inspired football.”
Liberty took the early lead in the first quarter when quarterback Johnathan Bennett found Noah Frith for a 16-yard touchdown with 17 seconds remaining in the period.
After Arkansas went for a fourth-and-five play at the Liberty 47 and failed the Flames then had a short field. They drove 53 yards in five plays with Bennett finding leading receiver Demario Douglas for a 20-yard touchdown. That put Liberty up 14-0 with 11 minutes remaining before halftime.
Arkansas appeared to have something going starting a drive at its own 29 with 6:09 remaining in the second quarter. Arkansas used three running plays by Sanders moving to the Liberty 26. On first down, Jefferson threw to Knox in the end zone and the ball bounced off the tight end’s hands into the waiting arms of cornerback Daijahn Anthony. Pittman talked about the interception. That was the second pass this season that has bounced off Knox’s hands into the defensive backs hands.
“Well, there were so many plays to be honest with you that could have turned the momentum a little bit you know,” Pittman said. “That certainly was one of them. But it just seemed like we were certainly out of sync for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because KJ didn’t throw the ball a tremendous amount this week. I don’t know. But we were out of rhythm. He seemed to be out of rhythm back there. Either that or we weren’t getting open because he was having a hard time finding receivers.”
Instead of being down only 14-7, Arkansas’ defense had to go back onto the field. Liberty marched 80 yards in 10 plays to take a 21-0 lead. Bennett found Treon Sibley for an 18-yard touchdown with 42 seconds remaining before intermission.
In the game, Arkansas allowed 14 tackles for loss. Pittman was asked what led to that?
“Well, we knew what they were doing,” Pittman said. “They had the same similar game plan against Wake Forest. Basically, they were twisting away from the back. They were trying to take our stretch play away from us, which we anticipated coming into the game and had blocked it up obviously a lot better in practice than we did tonight. But it wasn’t some scheme we didn’t know they had. They were twisting inside and twisting the two away from the back and blitzing that side as well. We just didn’t play very well, and getting kids motivated and things in the first half, that’s up to the head coach and we didn’t play inspired football in the first half.”
Sanders only rushed for 60 yards on 17 carries. AJ Green had the better day with six carries for 56 yards. The running game struggled most of the day finishing with just 144 yards on 42 attempts (3.4 per carry). Much like the rest of the offense the running game got better later in the game. Part of the reason for the poor running game was the offensive line wasn’t opening very many holes for much of the first three quarters. This came in the same week Pro Football Focus gave that unit the highest grade of any Power 5 school. Pittman knows the offensive line play has to be better than it was today.
“We’ll fix it,” Pittman said. “They’re good kids up there and they want to do well and all those things. They out-schemed us over there. They out-quicked us. It seemed like we were behind the twist with the ball-carrier, and we needed to be in front of it. They were getting penetration early in the game with that and we couldn’t get the ball to the edge. We went back inside and it seemed like their calls they were twisting inside as well. It seemed like they had a pretty good call for what we were trying to run and we couldn’t catch up with their speed is what it looked like to me without watching the tape.”
On a day when not many positives were present true freshman McAdoo playing his first game at cornerback shined. In addition to the blocked punt, he had an interception, three tackles and a pass breakup.
“Well, I didn’t know, to be honest with you, that he was going to pick a pass, but I knew that he was going to play well from practice,” Pittman said. “He started a lot, a couple of days in practice, played a lot with the ones. But he’s a competitor. Man, what a great pick at that point of the game. I had went for it on fourth, and at that time the game didn’t look salvageable, then he picked the pass and we got on a little bit of a run. Also, he blocked the punt. He’s a gamer, a freshman, I think he’ll have a great career here. I was proud of him.”
As far as McAdoo was concerned he was just thankful for the opportunity to be on the field.
“It was just a dream come true for me, really,” McAdoo said. “I come from Clarendon, and we don’t really get people to make it into college, not even just football — just make it into college. It was a dream come true for me, for sure.”
McAdoo talked about the interception and blocked punt and what special teams coach Scott Fountain told him.
“Coach Fountain, I mean, he was telling me all week, like, ‘If you want to be famous, you’ll block a punt. If you want to be famous, you’ll block a punt,’” McAdoo said. “I guess I wanted to be famous. And on the pick, I was just really playing.”
Jefferson finished the game completing 23 of 37 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Jadon Haselwood caught eight passes for 86 yards. Matt Landers had six receptions for 119 yards. Knox had the two catches for 13 yards.
Arkansas outgained Liberty 428 yards to 315. The Hogs had 284 yards through the air while the Flames had 224.
The Hogs (5-4, 2-3) will be at home on Saturday to host LSU at 11 a.m. and televised on the SEC Network.